This post has been bumped right up my schedule because I’m too excited not to share it with you. Today I’m writing about my recent trip to Field Notes HQ in Chicago.
A bit of backstory
I am a Field Notes fan. Let’s get that out of the way first and foremost. I love their usefulness and character, and yes, I do get a kick out of using them and seeing them all lined up, full of unimportant jottings and the occasional profound thought. I enjoy the range of editions that Field Notes produce: increasingly I find myself trying to match up the purpose of using a notebook with the aesthetic of the edition. On the same trip to Chicago I stopped off in Montreal for a business trip and found myself there on Canada Day – this called for a Red Blooded edition. My upcoming wedding incorporates shades of orange in what we hope will be an outdoorsy affair, so any Field Notes I use for planning adopt that theme too (so far this has included a couple of Drink Locals and a set of Shelterwood). What I am trying to communicate is that a visit to Field Notes HQ is a high point in my adventures with stationery.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I saw this tweet during a quick glance at Field Notes’ twitter feed in the week leading up to my visit to the US:
I travelled on my own to Chicago, and the days I would be there were Sunday 2nd July (Field Notes are closed at weekends), Monday 3rd and Tuesday 4th July. After a brief tweet of sorrow, I put it aside in my mind and chalked it up to bad luck. I would still get to see Chicago, I would still be in the US on the 4th July (a great experience for a Brit), these things happen.
Then I got a message from Michelle at Field Notes.
After a brief exchange, I gratefully accepted this offer.
Field Notes occupy a bright and airy building on North Racine Avenue, close to a railway line. Michelle told me that it had been a former photography studio and it really shows: the windows are huge, it’s a cavernous space. Upon moving in, the team set about getting it just right for them: old walls were removed to give an extra few feet of space, artworks were comissioned and office spaces set up. I always think that white is good to surround yourself with. Blank canvases everywhere. Just the thing for a group of creative people.
In one corner is a comfortable breakout space, lined with interesting books and looking onto a huge, beautiful artwork set across three canvases depicting an old, famous photo of Chicago.
In the middle of the space is a large island table. I recognised it immediately from previous films, including a lookback at the 2016 year in Field Notes and the “Open for Business” film. I can imagine lots of ideas being tossed around here. It can be wheeled around and added onto their kitchen area to create a huge table too. Perhaps for a Christmas party or drinks to celebrate the launch of a new edition.
A minimalist staircase leads to a mezzanine level with a few desks for the team. I work in an office and I was very jealous at the sight of this area. They overlook the whole space and catch so much light. I also loved the beautiful bespoke artwork by Brendan Monroe, who illustrated the XOXO 2015 edition (one of my favourite editions).
Michelle took me to see the more logistical areas of Field Notes too. I popped in to a small makeshift photography studio where the pictures for each limited edition are taken. I chuckled heartily because the Campfire edition had just been released a few days earlier, and in the photography studio was a pile of firewood for photography purposes. (On the way into this room I noticed a Drink Local coaster on the desk, too).
The back room for packing and shipping orders is set up very handily. The whole area is littered with various Field Notes editions and I learned that the team screenprint their own subscriber boxes in-house. This back area also included a small bike workshop as Michelle mentioned that several team members cycle to work.
The shopfront is a narrow space with windows into the rest of the building, giving the Field Notes fan a glimpse into its everyday life. One wall is lined with notebooks: the top shelf has every limited edition released so far (with space for only three more editions, I noticed, then it must be new shelf time). A full set of County Fairs occupies its own shelf, as does a set of out of print limited editions that are still for sale. There are a few little notes attached to some of the editions:
The sales area has the “Power of the Pen” Field Notes logo, and on the wall immediately as you walk into the shop there are full page prints of the America the Beautiful, Unexposed, XOXO 2015 and Ambition covers.
Talking shop with Michelle
The shop was where I really got to hear some of Michelle’s twenty year insights into Field Notes. I saw some large prints of Field Notes test print runs that don’t go towards the notebooks but instead are the result of the local printers optimising the ink flow and colour for the actual notebooks. Some of these printing offcuts are works of art. This America the Beautiful test run brought bright red into the Field Notes logo.
Of course, we talked about favourite editions. Michelle expressed affection for Night Sky, and told me how the constellations on the back cover were originally supposed to be glow in the dark before the holographic idea came into being. Ambition too – the gilded edges were an idea of Michelle’s, and the team worked with a local Bible printing company to produce them. Lunacy was a high point, a thorough design concept and a great use of grey paper (I completely agree, I am smitten with the Lunacy “moondust” paper shade).
Michelle highlighted America the Beautiful as an edition that really captures the essence of Field Notes. The cover illustrations are oversaturated photos, which the team requested were printed out-of-register and not on customary bright white paper stock. Apparently one of the printing team called his CEO to say that he was worried about the quality of the picture after it had been through this printing process. The CEO said “that’s the way they want it”.
I heard some stories behind the limited editions too. When the beautiful Packet of Sunshine was released in 2011, the team packed each packet of marigold seeds by hand. The original plan for releasing the Expedition edition was delayed when the British explorer that Field Notes were collaborating with decided to postpone his trip for a year. The team came up with Traveling Salesman to replace it in the space of about three days (it wasn’t perfect, the Traveling Salesman editions have the Field Notes logo printed ever so slightly to the left of centre on the front cover). Two Rivers was the longest edition to produce; originally, Field Notes wanted it to be the Fall edition of 2014 and left a good two months for production. The process of typesetting wood letters and letterpress meant that it took much longer to produce than expected (200 hours just to print the covers in fact, according to the edition’s Specification #3), so it had to be pushed back to Spring 2015.
Michelle also told me a bit about Field Notes’ history and its establishment through trade shows. I learned that the vast majority of sellers who stock Field Notes are independent businesses. This is a great achievement: independent sellers are likely to understand much more deeply how Field Notes complement their own brand offer to their customers. Of course, larger-scale collaborations have come along: Michelle noted that a former collaboration with J-Crew catapulted Field Notes into the popular consciousness, but these don’t make up the bulk of sellers that stock Field Notes in real life.
What I came away with
I came away with a Pitch Black large edition, a set of Commemorative Reprints, a Chicago single (my guest pass into Field Notes HQ), a Campfire edition (great timing for me, it was only released a few days before my visit), and an Illinois County Fair edition, which I promptly donated to my Airbnb host, who informed me he will keep them on his bedside table to write about his dreams as soon as he wakes up.
I also got some classic other Field Notes goodies: a rubber belly band, pencil and a cute Field Notes sticker. I didn’t buy any out of print editions – I have all of the ones they had on offer, and I wanted to buy editions that I didn’t have. I really thought about buying a full page spread of cover prints, but I wouldn’t have been able to keep it flat on the journey home to London. Sigh!
I’m so happy I got to visit Field Notes in person. Field Notes are a very interactive brand with their customers and visiting in person just reminds me, again, why I like it so much. Stationery and design are pretty much my two favourite things, and Field Notes represents these two things completely to me. It doesn’t mean every edition hits the perfect mark for me but I’m grateful that Field Notes are so innovative and thoughtful in their ideas. I can see why they are: the team are comprised of really talented people and I’m glad that they have such an exciting, comfortable and creative working environment.
I also feel like it’s a company with a history already: I can’t tell you how enjoyable it was for me to hear all of the stories about how certain editions were developed and little quirks that are memorable from each of them. I’ve got my own memories about how I’ve used Field Notes notebooks and where they’ve travelled with me too.
Field Notes, I’m not sure when I’ll next be back, but I’ll be thinking about my trip for a long time to come.
To Field Notes and Michelle, if you’re reading this. I am incredibly grateful that you opened your space up to a British girl who happened to be in Chicago on a day you were closed. It was honestly the highlight of my trip. Thank you!